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What does the presumption of innocence mean?

The presumption of innocence is an important part of our criminal law system.  Basically it means that if you are accused of a crime, you don’t have to prove you are innocent.  Instead, it is the job of the prosecutor to prove you are guilty.  In other words, unless the prosecutor can prove you committed the crime, you are entitled to be acquitted or found “not guilty”.  Not only does the prosecutor have to prove you are guilty, they have to prove you are guilty “beyond reasonable doubt”.

These are deliberate feature of our system designed to protect the rights of individuals when the state accuses them of a crime.  The rationale is that it is better that the guilty go free than that the innocent be convicted.  This has always been what set out system apart from totalitarian regimes or earlier systems like trial by ordeal – where witches were thrown in the river and if they drowned they were innocent.

But our system is not without controversy.  Many victims of crime see the system as being stacked in favour of the accused person, rather than protecting their rights.  And despite all of the protection in the system there are still miscarriages of justice where innocent people are convicted.

No system of criminal justice is perfect, the best that they can do is try and strike the right balance between the rights of the individual and the rights of the community.  The presumption of innocence is one of they ways our system tries to strike this balance.